Chapter 6: Touch of Reality
Today was our last day of freedom at the villa. While the slaves were preoccupied with packing our belongings, I escaped into our private baths at the villa. The hot bath was the most soothing. It was a place of be alone with my thoughts and relax. When I was done I crossed over to the gymnasium floor, which was adjacent to the baths. There Barbarius was busy lifting weights. I watched quietly from a distance, thinking about how hard I tried to be like him. But I could never be him. And I no longer wanted to.
After getting dressed, I walked back to the guest bedroom where I resided to see what progress Alexander made but he was gone. Maybe he was outside taking care of Shabby, who I discovered was a male dog. Out of all the tasks that were thrown at him I was thankful Shabby was in his care. Another thought crossed my mind. Where was my codex of the Aeneid? I scampered over to the tablinum to find it. The room resembled the library I found at the baths. Busts of father and Grandfather graced the wooden shelves positioned high on the paneled walls. My eyes scoured through the shelves of weathered scrolls and codices stuffed between the marble heads. As I reached for a codex, a scroll tipped over, sliding off the edge. I grabbed the unraveling parchment in midair.
Well this is obviously wasn't it. But just as I was about to toss it back on the shelf my curiosity won over. Inside was a record of the advisors who worked with father and Grandfather when he was in power. Next to their names were little notes including their positions. I read the names of the top-ranking men of father…Gaius…Felix… Then I looked down for our names in the following row.
Future successor: Barbarius.
I rolled up the scroll and placed it back on the shelf. I continued looking through the shelves and the writing desk. A clay jar full of styluses teetered towards the edge, while my wax tablet and an old map spread across the middle. Nothing more. Puzzled, I checked the chair which had a cloak draped over it. I lifted the red cloak and there was my book! I smiled.
Now I just had to make sure I put the scroll I touched in the proper order based on subject. As I skimmed the sections, I ran across "Trade Commission Log" in bold blank ink. I did not remember seeing it. Intrigued, I opened up the big codex, which was in small print. I flipped through the pages to see what the list would include. There were pages of imported and exported goods from a ten year time span like food, exotic animals, perfume oils, precious metals, slaves… Where did some of the slaves come from? I read on. Some were from Greece, North Africa, Gaul, and beyond. I remembered learning where to find some of these lands on a map in my geography lessons. However I knew very little about them or the outside world as a whole.
Where was Alexander from? I scrolled down the long lists to find his name only to realize there were many "Alexanders." I needed an identification number. It must have been the number branded on him. But what was his number? Then the curtains rustled. Startled, I closed the book and crammed it back into the bookshelf.
"It is time for us to start leaving," Apollus announced. "Did you have any records you need Barbarius to see?"
"Perhaps this," I said pointing to my wax tablet on the desk. Apollus picked it up and eyed it with a hint of excitement in his eyes. A rush of excitement flowed through me. That was close.
Once outside, everything was already hitched to the horses, and now the only thing left to load was the remaining crates. Waiting for me was Alexander who informed me that Shabby was safe and that his crate had air holes in it. With everything all taken care of, I was helped up on the chariot. Then Alexander took his seat as the driver. It was just the two of us now.
As we rode down the cobble-stone road, I attempted to find the mark on Alexander. Then I watched carefully as he scratched his shoulder. It was there that I saw the brand mark etched in black numerals on his left shoulder pad. I could not help but look at the mark with curiosity as I tried to make out the numbers.
"You like my brand mark?" he asked.
"Yes—I mean no. I mean I just wanted to see... never mind," I said with a sigh. I could feel my cheeks flushing.
"Did you want to learn about my mark?" he asked in an innocent voice.
"Just curious of what it stands for," I replied, nodding. The brand mark looked more like a tattoo. The only ones that seemed to have them were slaves.
"It is your unique label that serves as a daily reminder to others and yourself what your lot in society is. A slave." I bit my bottom lip. That was not quite the answer I was expecting but I sat back and listened as he opened up about his origin.
I learned that war destroyed his village. By age ten he was left an orphan. With little protection he was kidnapped by a warring faction who decided to use him in the gold mines in Dacia. Tired of the treatment and the squalor conditions he ran away only to be caught and branded.
"I was branded like a bull. I can still hear the metal hiss as it seared my flesh," he said rubbing his shoulder blade. "What was supposed to be a quick procedure felt like an eternity of torture," he said, heaving a sigh. I experienced pain, like the time Barbarius stabbed me, but this was much different. Once the breach was sealed, the scar would heal. But his pain was etched into his arm to haunt him for years to come.
"A few years later," he continued, "some traveling merchants from Aegea came across the mines. They were looking for gold and found me and a few other workers. I told them my master would kill me if I let them take the gold. They promised my freedom if I found any gold for them."
Clearly that never kept their promise.
Considering gold was not naturally found on the island, it was highly coveted. The wealth of the island was based on it. But from Alexander's mouth I gathered that the merchants or officials competed to obtain the most for the treasury. Merit was supposed to determine one's rank. But I was afraid gold was talking louder. How did I not realize this sooner! Did father know they were raiding mines? I should tell him!
"I would not want for our discussion to be made known to your brothers and especially not your father. Can I trust you?" How could I keep that secret from my family? Should they not know what is going on? Then again what if they knew?
"Promise me," he said. There was urgency in his voice. A knot twisted in my throat.
"Now you know how I became your slave."
I was too numb to say anything.
Perhaps it was best I never asked at all. I was always hungry to learn new things. But for the first time I wished I still basked in the bliss of ignorance.
I missed my old room. I stepped inside, greeted by the familiar scent of frankincense and olive oil. The golden bedframe glistened in the pale light that bled through the window above it. My feet continued shuffling across the mosaic tiles, edging closer to the soft bed that waited for me. I did not have to look in a scroll to tell me that life was full of winners and losers. That was the way things always were.
Life had returned to its usual predicable routine. The following day at the Grammaticus, I noticed Romeos and Julius sitting beside Silus in class. During the mid-day break I quickly filed out the classroom with Alexander carrying my lunch. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around only to find Romeos and not the teacher. His lips parted into a wide grin, easing my tense shoulders.
"Greetings. It feels like forever since we last spoke. I was wondering if you wanted to meet us for lunch by the bakery. There is always something tasty cooling on the window counters," he said licking his chapped lips.
"Thanks for the offer, but I will just eat by myself."
"Are you certain? You can bring your lunch along if you like," he suggested, flashing his good-natured grin.
"I am. I trust that I can keep my own appointment," I replied briskly.
"You got it all wrong," he said shaking his head. "That day before the holidays, Silus told us that instead of meeting at the public square, he wanted us to have a meal at his home. His parents love having company over. I did not anticipate it; plans just changed," he said, shrugging. "Look, you are getting too sensitive over this. But if you do not want to join us I can accept that decision." His mouth straightened into a taut line. My light-hearted friend was replaced with some solemn-faced boy. He looked just like Julius. I no longer had a smile to tell them apart.
"Wait," I sighed. "I did not mean to come off like this. I thought you excluded me on purpose. I am so used to being excluded by own brothers. I am just tired of being disappointed."
"Are you coming Romeos?" Silus blurted by the doorway.
"I am coming! Just hold one moment, Troy." He looked over his shoulder at Julius and Silus. "It looks like someone needs to visit the latrine badly!" Julius snickered while Silus rolled his eyes.
He focused his eyes back on me. His fleeting smile was gone. "Maybe you should not always assume the worst."
He left me with those words before turning to join Julius and Silus to wander the streets for a tasty meal. It was true I had jumped to conclusions but they would never understand what some were capable of doing. Before my encounter with that quiet slave, I was blind to the structure of society. Blind to the fact that everyone was not as fortunate as I was. But if there was one thing I could do to repay Alexander for taking care of Shabby, was that I honor my promise. I would keep his words secret. For my own peace of mind, I would pretend we never had that conversation. Maybe it was better this way.
If there was one thing I could sympathize with Alexander was the feeling of loss. The fast approaching Tribute ceremony would consume my waking thoughts, just like it did every year. But because it was the tenth anniversary it would not just be a private event. It would be a public spectacle filled with singers performing their dirges. A week flew by, and then another passed as quickly as the brisk spring breeze. The grueling wait had ended. It was here.
TODAY IS DECLARED AN OFFICIAL HOLIDAY.
The air was quiet and still this morning. I rubbed my eyes which were still heavy with sleep. Not even the birds could be heard singing their melodic songs today. A stiff breeze rustled through the branches outside my window before it died. If I had my way I would stay in my room all day but father would never allow it. The slaves came flooding into my room, forcing me to wake up to face the grueling day ahead. Even Apollus who usually loved to hear himself talk did not have much to say. There was no school today, but nobody would be rejoicing. Today we would begin our procession to the Field of Souls.
The crowds grew as they trailed behind our train of chariots leading beyond the city limits of Apathia. The graveyard sprawled across the valley plain which was surrounded by rolling hills. Below the bed of grass and clovers were resting corpses. Although the earthquake had taken many lives, I was reminded by the sea of strangers that there were more survivors. Matching my steps was Apollus. Between the highs and lows of the singer's notes, our eyes met for a fleeting moment. Without a word he draped an arm around my shoulder. The gesture was rare but welcomed. Meanwhile Barbarius had disappeared from my range of vision, getting lost in the sea of people. The closest family member now was the one that irritated me the most. To him it was duty to protect me when Barbarius failed to. No matter how much Apollus vexed me, I still needed him. I needed all of them.
My father led a small group of close family and dignitaries to commemorate the memory of my mother privately before he led the public one for the other nameless victims later that day. Even the Roman dignitary was in his midst. I had forgotten he was still here.
My father's words were well-chosen and crisp. However there were too many thoughts and emotions running inside my head that I could barely pay attention to the speech. Memories of her reading stories to me and spending time in the garden they she helped create flooded my mind. Maybe if I thought about the happy times I could drown out the heart-break. Maybe I wouldn't feel so lost right now.
"She is gone now. She left our world and entered another that we mortals have not quite ventured. Hopefully we learned that life is one big adventure. She has had her adventure while she was still living on earth. She was a queen, wife, and devoted mother. She carried out her duties in life and can rest assure that she has fulfilled them to her very best ability. Maybe it was destiny that she was in our lives; maybe it was destiny that she is no longer here before us…" his voice trailed as if in deep thought before continuing.
How was that possibly fair? So the gods destined that I did need a mother anymore at age four? That a young woman could never see her boys grow into young men? The words that were supposed to bring comfort only left me more disillusioned and angry. I wanted nothing to do with the gods or this whole event. I just wanted disappear from everyone and everything. I slowly slipped away from the sullen crowds. My feet trampled the overgrown grass and clovers, wandering aimlessly into the hills.
A faint bark snapped me from my thoughts. Or perhaps it was only an echo. I trudged ahead.
It was louder this time. My heart stirred as I seen a figure running towards me.
"Shabby?" I gasped. "What are you doing?" He continued running. He jumped towards me. Startled, I backed away only to trip on a rock behind me. I crashed backwards, landing on my back. I opened my eyes only to see Shabby hovering over me. With his moist tongue pulsing, he licked my face. I stroked my finger underneath his chin to make him stop but he persisted. My initial resistance was melting. With his long, moist tongue he licked my ear. He always knew my ticklish spots. I could not help but laugh aloud.
"Stop!" I sputtered. I clutched my stomach until it ached. My fists pounded the earth as I rolled away, chuckling. A sticky wad of drool dribbling over my ear brought the laughter to an abrupt stop. Shabby stood his ground, wagging his tail. I never thought I would be laughing so hard. I had not laughed so hard in a long time. And of all times at a funeral.
But something was missing from Shabby. His chain was gone.
"Alexander was taking such good care of you. Why did you run away?" Then it dawned on me. He was looking for me! Back at back home, Alexander took him into his main care. During the night he resided in the stable. And whenever he would transport Shabby he would carry him inside the crate, and pretend it was "supplies." I had visited him a few times during the day, but I was consumed by my studies at the Grammaticus and my additional time spent either training in the gymnasium or at dinner parties with father's acquaintances. But I could not forget the loyal friend that did not waver in following me.
"You have to stay here under the boughs of this tree," I said pointing to a lone juniper tree. "I will come back for you, I promise. But you must stay please!" He followed me to the base of the tree as I plucked a few lilies that surrounded the roots to put in my sash. I made up my mind. I would return to the crowd that I abandoned. By now the discourse was over and the crowds had dispersed between the white-washed graves. Father stood alone with his arms folded against his chest. He was waiting for me.
"Troy, have you seen Barbarius? I thought you were looking for him. He left early for whatever reason. Do you know if he went home?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe. I have no idea." It did not surprise me if Barbarius left for home. He was never fond of coming here.
"I assumed you went out to find him. The foreign diplomat wanted to speak to him alone. This island will be counting on him soon, so it is best that he begins to establish good relations with the outsiders. He is my oldest and the best left of me after I leave this earth," he said. I nodded, averting his piercing gaze.
"Troy," he said in a stern voice. I looked up, catching the sun in my eyes instead. "You seem distant, son," he continued. "I know you still miss your mother. We all do. And these recent weeks have been difficult for you. It has left you in a fragile state of mind. I just wish you could just cope with it better and move on like Apollus or Barbarius—"
"But I am not Barbarius. And I am not Apollus. I am your son, Troy. I never will be them. But I just want some assurance that I am not the forgotten one and that you still care." Father pursed his lips together before heaving a loud sigh.
"Do not try to make it seem as if I do not care about you!" he said raising his voice. Just then one of his officials walked in. He cleared his throat before turning to face Felix. But he couldn't hide the bright shade of pink that colored his cheeks.
"I was meaning to tell you that you did a wonderful job delivering your eulogy," he said with a coy smile. "I extend my deepest sympathy to your family." It was the same empty repetitious phrase I heard from onlookers. It was recited so many times it almost lost all meaning. His feign look of pity he tried to muster was not helping my growing distrust of my father's officials. It was best I dismiss myself from their company. I would only be expected to remain silent anyways.
I had avoided it too long. I knew what I needed to do. My eyes were glazed over; my movements slow as the grass brushed my ankles.
The white gravestone stood fixed in the earth. Engraved was her name in Latin and Greek:
I tasted the name as it slipped past my tongue and let it float into the somber air. I reached into my sash and pulled out the fresh lilies I plucked earlier.
"To you mother," I said, tucking them with the other flowers that covered the base. Now it was complete.
"I miss you. No one seems to understand how I feel. If only you could bring this family together and tell me everything would work out just so… I am trying to be strong for you. I really am," my voice wavered. I got up from my knees to wipe my brows. Then I felt a familiar brush of fur against my shins.
It was Shabby. Without announcing his presence he crawled between my legs. I kneeled to stroke his soft golden fur around his ears. He didn't stir.
My fingers raked into his warm fur, stroking his back in a rhythmic motion. The numbness I felt was replaced with the warmth coming from him as he nudged his head against my arm. I loosened my grip on his neck, reminding myself he was not my pillow. He was better than one. I had told myself he was following me simply for the next meal but I knew better now. He didn't just need me. I needed him.
"It looks like you have a new furry friend. Where did you find him?" I looked up to see Grandfather looming over me. His thin lips parted into a grin across his leathery skin. I rose from my seat on the ground.
"Actually he found me." Grandfather opened his mouth as if to say something but just managed a nod. We stood watching Shabby sniffing my sandals.
"How do you feel?" he began.
"I still feel a twinge of sadness…" I turned to look at Shabby "But I feel a little better now." Grandfather arched his back as his hand hovered over the dog's back. Shabby let out a bark, cocking his head upwards to inspect the "stranger" who dare pet him. Grandfather chuckled.
"I am glad to hear that. I know each person handles grief differently," he said growing serious again. "For some it debilitates them, leaving them crippled and never able to recover." He was talking about me. He just did not want to be mean and say my name I thought. "For others it hardens their soul leaving them empty and callous to feel again. For others they pretend everything is alright, when deep down inside they are lost. For some they would rather avoid whatever evokes those bitter memories to escape their feelings. Yet there are others that experience their grief but never let it 'break' them while not truly forgetting what happened. By the hardships they are able to storm tumultuous waters and become a stronger person in return. It is my wish that you would become like the latter."
I hoped so too.